ASKAP_four_hires.screen-300x192How did the first galaxies form? What is the nature of dark energy? Are there other life forms in the universe? Finding answers to big questions like these are the focus of the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, the mega science project of the 21st century to build the largest and most powerful radio telescope in the world.

We had the pleasure of hosting Dr Andrew Ensor, Director NZ SKA Alliance and Director of the High Performance Computing Research Laboratory at Auckland University of Technology at our TechDrop earlier this month. Dr Ensor gave us an enlightening presentation around New Zealand’s involvement in the SKA project and shared insights into technology evolution over the next decade.

New Zealand is one of 11 member countries of the SKA Alliance which includes Australia and South Africa where the telescope sites will be located. At a cost of €650M for phase 1 and an estimated €2 – €6billion for phase 2, it is the largest science and technology project that New Zealand has ever been involved with. Approximately 35-40% of the budget is allocated towards computing requirements for the Central Signal Processor and Science Data Processor which New Zealand is involved with.

From a technology perspective, SKA poses significant challenges as well as tremendous opportunities. The ambitious scope of SKA presents the biggest Big Data problem in history. SKA Phase 1 must grapple with Big Data on a scale that the ICT industry won’t face for another 5-10 years. SKA Phase 2 will be an order of magnitude bigger yet.

“If you can fit it in a database, you don’t have a data problem,” says Dr Ensor.

To give some context, here are some figures on current vs. expected data generation per year for SKA:

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Google searches (98 Petabytes-PB) => Facebook uploads (180 PB) => Business emails sent (3000 PB or 3 Exabytes-EB) vs SKA 1 combined archive (6.5 EB).

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Global Internet traffic 2013 (420 EB) vs. combined data generated by SKA 1 antennas (15600 EB or 15.6 Zettabytes)

The project will require capabilities beyond those of existing technologies in data processing, transfer, compression, and energy consumption; in other words, the technology needed to support SKA doesn’t exist yet! And that’s what makes SKA so exciting for the technology industry. There is huge potential for spin off technologies that will create a paradigm shift in how computing works today.

SKA antenna 2SKA is looking at mobile technology as a starting point because of its advanced efficiencies in data processing and low energy consumption. SKA will require considerably more sophisticated processing capabilities to handle the unprecedented amounts of data generated. Technologies that can improve current data compression, storage and transfer speeds will also be in high demand. Similarly, since the telescope arrays are located in remote sites such as deep in the Australian outback where there is no power source, advances in low energy consumption technologies are required in order to cost effectively power the telescopes 24/7.

As SKA requirements push technological boundaries, new technologies that emerge will benefit businesses and consumers alike. For example, increased mobile processing power and data storage capabilities could make cell phones smaller, faster, and able to store more than current models. Improvements to low heat, low power-consuming processors will make phone batteries last longer.

The goal of SKA may be to address fundamental science questions about the universe, but spin off technologies may be just as significant. Sophisticated advances in computing as a result of SKA research could provide the foundation for new products and services that we can’t even imagine.

Picture1Thank you Dr Ensor for giving us a glimpse of the future and the possibilities that lie ahead. It’s exciting times for the New Zealand tech industry!

Dr Andrew Ensor, Director NZ SKA Alliance and Director of the High Performance Computing Research Laboratory at AUT, presented at ClearPoint’s TechDrop session on 5 August 2015. At ClearPoint we believe that innovation can occur anywhere and anytime. Discussion and debate between peers from different industries is a good stimulus for creativity and innovation. That’s why we initiate the TechDrop series. Get in touch for more details or stay tuned to our blog for more fresh thinking.